By Selwyn Harris
It’s the third leading cause of death among Nevada teens and young adults.
The Silver State ranks number five in the nation for people who choose to end their lives at their own hands.
Disturbingly, many of those have barely started their lives.
As such, officials with the Nye County School District are taking a proactive stance against teen suicide.
A program known as “TeenScreen” was introduced this week at Rosemary Clarke Middle School RCMS and Pahrump Valley High School.
TeenScreen is a free nationally recognized mental health-screening program for adolescents ages 11 through 18.
Coordinator Renee Ball said it began at Columbia University in New York more than 10 years ago and is designed to recognize teens who may be at risk for harming themselves.
“We will be screening all students who have parental consent. The students are asked to complete the Columbia Health TeenScreen questionnaire. It is a 14-question questionnaire that deals with issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and general health. We are basically looking for precursors or internalization of emotions that sometimes lead kids to suicide or put kids at suicidal risk,” she said.
For decades Nevada has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, for every teen that dies by suicide, it’s estimated that 100 to 200 teens have attempted suicide.
A youth risk behavior study from the center showed that 18 percent of Nevada high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey.
Ball said parents should be more aware of their kids’ behavior and look for potential signs and changes.
She also noted that parents should not confuse the changes with the normal adolescent changes all kids go through from time to time.
“It could be a change in grades and friends or even a change in appetite. That’s what the TeenScreen program helps parents to do. It’s an early identification program. We don’t diagnose kids with anxiety or depression. This screening has proven to be effective and it identifies a larger percentage of kids in schools than would be identified without the screening. It’s efficient, it’s effective, and it picks up kids who are under the radar, which is very important,” she said.
The TeenScreen starts out as a questionnaire on the general health of the student.
From there it goes into various risk factors that give screeners an indication about whether the student is having more than just teen angst.
“They are very general questions that the students answer based on what’s going on in their life at this time. It’s rated on sometimes, very often, very, very often and so on. The kids actually get to self-identify and it’s scored. It’s important to remember that teens are very honest if we ask the question. The problem is that we don’t ask the question and we don’t ask the question because we don’t really want to know the answer,” Ball said.
Some of the risk factors in suicidal youth are obvious to most parents.
They include knowledge on whether their child has been the victim of a bully, a history of trauma or abuse, and prior suicide attempts.
Ball also noted that risk factors and warning signs are not one and the same.
“Those warning signs should tell parents that something is not right. What is unique about the TeenScreen program is the students will be given a chance assent, meaning the parents have already said yes. We tell them this is a mental health screening and this is going to look at their emotions, and how they are functioning in school. We kind of get an idea of where they are,” she said.
Ball went on to say that the student does have the option not to take the screening if they choose.
“They don’t have to do it even if their parent gave permission. I, of course, will let the parent know because obviously the parent wanted them to have it. I don’t try to force them because TeenScreen standards must be upheld. I have to have certain people with credentials here. They all have to be trained and the students have to have a chance to opt-out. The parents have to have active consent. All of those components are safeguards for the student, for the staff, and the school,” she added.
Once the student is finished, the questionnaire is scored by qualified members of Ball’s staff to determine the results.
A negative evaluation means that the student is within the normal growth and development range.
A positive evaluation means the student is at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or even suicide.
Ball said any student who receives a positive evaluation will then proceed to the next step in the process.
“They will meet with a clinical therapist. They are trained in this field, they volunteer their time. Any student who scores positive by protocol must see a therapist and have a clinical interview for 20 to 30 minutes and that is really critical and at that point, the therapist will make a decision. The parent will be called because the child showed some issues and met with the therapist,” she said.
One local student at RCMS is very familiar with the TeenScreen program.
Bryce Ellington, 14, was found hanging out with friends at the skate park recently. He said though he thinks the program is a good idea for some of his classmates, he said he’s sure it doesn’t apply to him.
“I just truly don’t think that I need to go do it because I have never had thoughts like that before and I don’t think I ever will. I’m okay,” he said.
One female PVHS student who chose to remain anonymous said she knew of a classmate who recently tried to commit suicide in a rather crude fashion.
“They took a bottle of aspirin, 12 amphetamines, and cut their wrist. She survived but she had to go to a treatment center and she’s been dealing with it since then. She was just very depressed over her family and her parents. I was upset that it happened at all and I felt bad afterwards that she couldn’t call someone beforehand or talk to someone,” she said.
That same student also admitted that she had considered taking her own life more than once.
“It was just the same old expletive . Family, friends, relationships. I’ve been to counseling, but I don’t talk to counselors because I just don’t trust them. There are these rules where if you say you are going to attempt suicide, they have to tell someone and you get sent away to treatment centers,” she said.
The student added that she no longer has thoughts of taking her own life.
Nye County’s contract medical examiner, Dr. Rexene Worrell, said in terms of teen suicide, Nye County numbers have remained low over the past six years.
“We had an 11-year old, but that’s not a teenager. We had two 19-year-olds who overdosed that could have been suicides but I didn’t have any clear and convincing evidence so I made them accidental overdoses. Having said that, I only cover from Tonopah to the south so anything from Tonopah to the north would have gone to Reno,” she said.
Schools in 46 states have adopted the standardized TeenScreen Program.
Ball said only one school district in Nevada has not approved the program for students.
“The only place that it has not been utilized recently is the Clark County School District. It was approved for Washoe, Esmeralda, Mineral, and all of those outlying counties and of course Nye County,” she said.
In 2010, there were seven suicides in Clark County involving kids 17 or younger.
Last year, there were 15 suicides committed by students 17 or younger.
Two of the kids were younger than 11 years old.